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As Some States Reopen, Theater Owners Are Watching — And Mostly Waiting


A handful of theaters are screening movies for the first time in more than a month. On Saturday, the San Antonio chain Santikos opened three cineplexes - masks are required. They're playing older movies at a discount. They're limiting the number of patrons for social distancing. Other theater owners are waiting to see how this turns out. Here's NPR's Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: About half the movie screens in the U.S. belong to three national theater chains - AMC, Regal and Cinemark. Not one of them has plans to reopen before June. Even if they did, Hollywood studios can't release a major movie until it can play in major cities. And most U.S. cities are currently on lockdown. So if cinemas are to bounce back as governors open up individual states, it's up to local chains and independent theaters to start. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp authorized theater openings almost two weeks ago.


BRIAN KEMP: I know people are chomping at the bit to get back to work. People, are you know, experiencing financial ruin right now. I think people are getting very frustrated with having to stay at home.

MONDELLO: So I asked Chris Escobar, who owns The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, what time the show starts tonight.

CHRIS ESCOBAR: (Laughter) We aren't going to have a show tonight. We are respectfully not taking the governor up on exactly what he's doing. And keep in mind, he's not forcing anyone to reopen. But at the same time, I'm not forcing my employees to choose between their livelihoods and their lives.

MONDELLO: Chris Collier, executive director of Renew Theaters, is thinking along similar lines. His organization manages four cinemas in the currently locked-down states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When those states allow him to reopen, he is unlikely to leap back in.

CHRIS COLLIER: We are imagining what that could look like, with spaces between people, shields at the concession stand. But honestly, it's going to be a long way off.

ALISON KOZBERG: Reopening might actually require a substantial amount of investment on the part of theaters.

MONDELLO: Alison Kozberg is managing director of Art House Convergence, a nonprofit that works with about 200 independent theaters nationwide.

KOZBERG: It would require buying new equipment and new hygiene products to keep the theater clean and safe in accordance with new guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID. And for some theaters, the expense is going to be viable, But for others, it's going to be quite overwhelming.

MONDELLO: Especially, says Collier, at just one quarter of capacity.

COLLIER: At that point, with the cost of staff and cooling over the summer, it might actually be more cost-effective to stay closed until we can reopen properly.

MONDELLO: In the meantime, he and a lot of theater operators are trying something called virtual cinema in which their patrons can screen a new film at home and the theater gets a share of the proceeds. Great idea, says Collier, but...

COLLIER: The number of ticket sales are more in the tens instead of the hundreds and thousands.

MONDELLO: So what else? When Escobar thought Atlanta's Plaza Theatre would be closed for a couple of weeks, he figured they'd do the equivalent of cleaning out the garage.

ESCOBAR: We were going, OK, well, let's paint the floors. Let's organize concessions. Let's, you know, make use of this time.

MONDELLO: But as weeks stretched to months and costs mounted, he got bigger ideas like a contact-free pop-up drive-in behind the theater. And he wants to give something back to frontline workers in hospitals and even grocery stores.

ESCOBAR: My sister Kristen (ph) works at a Publix. My mom works at a Costco. I understand firsthand the new level of risk that none of these folks had ever signed up for.

MONDELLO: So he created movie night care packages for them, free tickets and refreshments when the theater starts up again. And before that, on a more limited basis, private screenings for first responders.

ESCOBAR: One family at a time. They get to watch their favorite movie. They have the entire 485-seat movie theater to themselves. Give them the full treatment of concessions and popcorn. We're going to treat them like the VIPs that they are.

MONDELLO: And he's hardly alone in getting creative, says Kozberg, who deals with lots of theaters.

KOZBERG: The Music Box in Chicago has a kind of tip line where people can call in and describe what streaming services they have and their programmers to recommend what to watch. Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, N.Y., has really been working with their audience to care for them. They've been calling them on the phone just to make sure they're doing all right.

MONDELLO: And there's this...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One hundred dollars.

MONDELLO: ...Aimed at kids.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. Good. Now we have your intention. We work at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The theater is trying to find new and innovative ways to keep you and your family entertained at home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: By making your own film with your family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have to be 16 years old or younger to enter.

MONDELLO: Renew Theaters' Chris Collier is thinking even younger.


COLLIER: Do you want to introduce yourself?

ZACHARY: Yeah. I'm Zachary (ph).

COLLIER: And we're here to talk about what movies we're watching while we're at home and share some of our streaming options. One of the films that we've been watching is...

ZACHARY: "Fantasia."

COLLIER: He's only just 4, so the biggest draw for him at the theaters is the popcorn. But he really does like the experience. And at home, he does run around the house and loses attention. But at the theater, he sits in the dark and is enrapt with what's on screen.

MONDELLO: That is the magic of cinema. And Zachary, you might argue, is the future of theaters. He's also the reason Collier is pretty sure theaters will have a future.

Bob Mondello, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.